At EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — With an ear-ringing roar, the matte-gray fighter jet streaked down Runway 12 and sliced into a cloudless afternoon sky over the Florida Panhandle. To those watching on the ground, the sleek, bat-winged fuselage soon shrank into a speck, and then nothing at all, as Marine Capt. Brendan Walsh arced northward in America’s newest warplane, the F-35 Lightning II.
The F-35 has features that make pilots drool. It is shaped to avoid detection by enemy radar. It can accelerate to supersonic speeds. One model can take off and land vertically. Onboard electronic sensors and computers provide a 360-degree view of the battlefield on flat-panel screens, allowing pilots to quickly identify targets and threats.
How the F-35 defends itself against budget cuts
Conceived in the 1990s, the F-35 program was supposed to use the same airframe to produce planes for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, with only modest modifications. Instead of meeting the original plan of being 70 percent similar, the three versions now are about 70 percent distinct. Here are the key differences among the three airplanes:
But its greatest strength has nothing to do with those attributes. The Defense Department and Lockheed Martin, the giant contractor hired to design and build the plane, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, have constructed what amounts to a budgetary force field around the nearly $400 billion program.
Although it is the costliest weapons system in U.S. history and the single most expensive item in the 2013 Pentagon budget, it will face only a glancing blow from the sequester this year. And as the White House and Congress contemplate future budgets, those pushing for additional cuts may find it difficult to trim more than a fraction of the Pentagon’s proposed fleet, even though the program is years behind schedule and 70 percent over its initial price tag.
The reasons for the F-35’s relative immunity are a stark illustration of why it is so difficult to cut the country’s defense spending. Lockheed Martin has spread the work across 45 states — critics call it “political engineering” — which in turn has generated broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Any reduction in the planned U.S. purchase risks antagonizing the eight other nations that have committed to buying the aircraft by increasing their per-plane costs. And senior military leaders warn that the stealthy, technologically sophisticated F-35 is essential to confront Iran, China and other potential adversaries that may employ advanced anti-aircraft defenses.
The biggest barrier to cutting the F-35 program, however, is rooted in the way in which it was developed: The fighter jet is being mass-produced and placed in the hands of military aviators such as Walsh, who are not test pilots, while the aircraft remains a work in progress. Millions more lines of software code have to be written, vital parts need to be redesigned, and the plane has yet to complete 80 percent of its required flight tests. By the time all that is finished — in 2017, by the Pentagon’s estimates — it will be too late to pull the plug. The military will own 365 of them.
By then, “we’re already pregnant,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who oversees F-35 development for the Pentagon.
When the F-35 finishes testing, “there will be no yes-or-no, up-or-down decision point,” said Pierre Sprey, who was a chief architect of the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon. “That’s totally deliberate. It was all in the name of ensuring it couldn’t be canceled.”